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October 14, 2016

Ten Tips to Improve the Transparency of Budget Documents

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Posted by Greg Rosenberg[1]

Many countries produce voluminous budget documentation, with reports that run for hundreds of pages, and thousands of pages of raw data[2]. The main documents form a verbose, jargon-heavy, disjointed collection of policies, spending programs, and irrelevant or marginally relevant details, with little analysis of macroeconomic or fiscal trends. In a few countries, the story is different. The budget documents are concise and plainly written. They focus on relevant information, with frank analysis of expenditure and revenue trends, and explain clearly how public finances are being managed.  

Producing transparent budget documents requires policy makers to explain complex concepts to a range of audiences. Doing so has tangible benefits. Clear, transparent budget documents can strengthen policy impact, fiscal planning, legislative oversight, and citizen involvement. Such reports enable policy makers to send signals about developing economic and fiscal trends, helping to shape public debate and foreshadowing future responses. 

An open budget that acknowledges economic and fiscal realities, in a way that is easily understood, supports accountability and effective budget planning. It enables civil society organizations to engage with the budget. This, in turn, strengthens the social contract between citizens and the state. And, crucially, the act of clear writing itself helps finance ministries to refine their own thinking on budget strategy and policy, leading to better and more coherent policy choices.

All of this may sound elementary, but experience suggests that it is not.

Here are 10 ways to improve the transparency of budget documents:

1. Draft accessible documents with diverse target audiences in mind

Think about your readers. The central audiences for budget documents include government departments, multilateral agencies, investors and rating agencies, private sector companies, and civil society, as well as the general public. Budget documents should be written in a way that enables any interested reader to understand what is being said, and how the budget process works. They should not be prepared for an audience of economists or specialists. 

This is a challenging agenda, not least because drafting this way starts with clear thinking. It’s much easier to roll out a string of jargon than to explain complex concepts. But writing clearly and accessibly can sharpen policy acuity. Moreover, it is often in the writing that one discovers gaps or weaknesses in an argument. 

A citizens’ budget is a useful adjunct, providing a brief, plain-language summary of how the state raises and spends money, and what it is doing to support development

2. Structure documents logically

Structure should flow logically, supporting a clear policy focus. This requires writers to have a good understanding of the budget and its key messages. Chapters should be concise, with logical headings and subheadings to guide readers through each section.

A well-presented 10-page overview chapter is the policy maker’s best friend.

3. Write with clarity and simplicity

Budget documents should be clearly written. Language needs to be direct, and sentence construction concise. Unnecessary words should be omitted, jargon removed, flowery prose uprooted, complex technical subjects explained, and a glossary of technical terms provided.

As George Orwell said, “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.”

4. Maintain a thematic policy focus

Tie the budget decisions on resource allocation directly to policy themes. Such themes might range from building fiscal space, to enacting macroeconomic or microeconomic reforms, to promoting growth, or taking steps to reduce inequality.

Bringing greater focus to the documents, and taking firm decisions about what material is necessary, can also reduce the length of reports. It is often the case that less is more.

5. Tell a story

Once core messages are established, a story will start to emerge. Here the term story does not allude to fiction, but rather, as the Merriam-Webster dictionary says, “A statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question.” In other words, the macroeconomic and fiscal outlook, and the policy decisions that respond to those considerations, needs to be explained in clear narrative form.

This narrative thread should run through the document.  

6. Reduce unnecessary detail

All too often, budget documents are a data dumping ground, interspersed with long passages that strangle reader comprehension. Overwhelming the reader with detail does not contribute to transparency; on the contrary, it promotes obscurity.

What is the “right” level of detail? A report should contain the evidence to support assertions, and highlight key trends. The extensive data available to finance ministries needs to be published in an accessible form – indeed, this is often a legal requirement – but such material often belongs in annexes or separate reports to which readers can be referred, rather than the main budget documents themselves.

In this context, it is useful to recall the words of French mathematician Blaise Pascal: “The letter I have written today is longer than usual because I lacked the time to make it shorter.”

7. Provide thoughtful analysis

Analysis improves the utility and focus of budget documents, which are more than the sum of revenue and expenditure decisions. Examination of broader trends, supported by well-designed tables and graphs, supports long-term fiscal and economic planning.

8. Develop a professional production process

Budget documents are complex publications that involve multiple deadlines, data points, policy messages and forecasts. Producing professional documents requires a production schedule, a writing team with a clear brief, and high-quality editing and proofreading.

A lead author, reporting to senior officials in the ministry, should have overall responsibility for the documents.

9. Revise, revise, revise

Once the draft chapters are written, the editing begins. A team drafting budget documents should expect multiple rounds of editing and revision in response to comments by various contributors.  

Rigorous, thoughtful editing is essential. A single error can undermine the credibility of the entire process. 

1Think about how the document looks

We are told not to judge a book by its cover. But a clean, attractive layout plays an important role in how the reader engages with a report. Readable fonts, smart use of colours, clear graphs, sufficient white space – all help in making a document accessible.  

In conclusion, transparent budget documents can strengthen policy impact and institutional credibility. These in turn promote more thoughtful oversight, enhanced accountability, and greater citizen engagement.  

[1] The author is Managing Director of Clarity Editorial (www.clarityeditorial.co.za) in Cape Town, South Africa. He advises African governments on how to strengthen budget communications and transparency.

[2] A website recently launched by the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI) provides relevant information on the practices of 28 African countries (http://www.cabri-sbo.org/en/countries/documents).   

Note: The posts on the IMF PFM Blog should not be reported as representing the views of the IMF. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the IMF or IMF policy.

Comments

These are all good points. Having worked in the production of documents in a number of different jurisdictions, it is a balance in trying to tell a story as well as providing sufficient information that will satisfy data hungry people who want to see the underlying numbers.

We also should not forget that budget documents are primarily political documents, they are a manifestation of what a Government intends to do, after all governments achieve outcomes by taxing, spending or regulating. Budgets should capture the full details of at least 2 of these actions.

Your blog points out that...
"In a few countries, the story is different. The budget documents are concise and plainly written."

It would be good to see examples of these, if you have them.

Cheers
Richard

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